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Welcome to the third photo interview from my trip to DeLand! The concept of this series is a simple one: Let readers out there get to know some of the amazing people and badasses in our sport in a way that focuses less on the luster and length of their skydiving resume, and highlights who they are as ordinary people.
Having been in the world of competitive skydiving for a while, I have had the chance to work with and be around some world class coaches. When people ask who I think the best is, my answer is the subject of this interview. He has been a competitor, a champion, and now helps others become champions. I’ve never been around him when he wasn’t happy and outgoing. He is the type of guy who will remember your name months after a short meeting in passing at the DZ. I hope you guys enjoy getting to know a little more about Solly Williams.
Zach Lewis: OK Solly, there is a little bit more than a hint of an accent in your voice; tell us about where you are from.
Solly Williams: I’m from the deep south. I spent the first 10 years of my life in Southern Thailand. Then the next 20 years were in South Africa. I was a traveling wilbury the next decade moving between the U.S., Europe and South Africa. I slowly transformed what I considered home in South Africa to the United States. I remember being on a flight back to the U.S. in the late ‘90s wondering, “Am I going to America, or am I going home?” It was a strange revelation to realize I was going home by going to America.
Are your parents South African?
My late mother was Dutch, and my late father was second generation Zimbabwean/South African. My father was obviously white, although born in Zimbabwe. They were Christian missionaries in Thailand and in South Africa as well.
What is the best way to really piss you off?
I have almost no tolerance for what I would consider injustice or bullying. I can get myself into trouble and sparks tend to fly if I see someone getting treated poorly or bullied.
Outside of skydiving and the tunnel, what do you do for fun?
I gave up motocross bike racing, and pretty much started skydiving soon after. I still retain a passion for dirt biking, even though I do it very infrequently today. I would say that my most passionate activity outside of family and skydiving would be golf.
I know you have a family; how do you bring home the bacon?
I spread myself between being involved in skydiving at multiple levels. I still have my tandem and AFF ratings but primarily I would say it is still coaching and the love of 4-way that keeps me in skydiving. I also tinker with real estate and buy homes in need of renovation and rent them short or long term.
Did you always want to work in the skydiving industry? Or were you surprised that you ended up being a full-time skydiver.
I was and often still am very surprised that I ended up making a living in the sport. I was pretty adamant I wouldn’t be working in skydiving long term. For example, in South Africa you had to be a jump master to get a D license. I put up a pretty good fight as to why I didn’t want to be involved in jump mastering students because I was sure I would never be working in skydiving. However, I wanted the D license. I also said South African 4-way would never be strategically placed to medal at a world meet in our post-apartheid era but only a few years later we did in fact medal at the ‘97 World Meet. Then I said I would never win a world meet either but we know how that ended. I’m the complete opposite of someone who actually set out to win a world championship. The success I achieved with teammates was more through making the best of our opportunities and one thing lead to the other.
First thing you do when you get up in the morning?
Turn on the kettle for a cup of tea.
What do you suck at?
How much time do I get to answer that one? I would say that if I look at the diversity of what I do for a living, my administration is at a poor level. General paperwork and administration are below satisfactory. I wouldn’t think I am very good at languages either. They don’t come easily to me. I also suck at maintaining long-term focus at any given point. If it’s more than 35 seconds. I’m your classic ADHD, ants-in-your-pants kinda guy although aging is helping immensely in this department.
What accomplishment, skydiving or outside of the sport, are you the proudest of?
Inside the sport, I feel like I along with teammates did a great job of managing our limited resources to end up winning international medals and a world championship too. There are multiple roads to success in skydiving but they all involve hard work and money. If you don’t have a lot of money it takes a little harder work and a bit more grinding. We ground it out to get to the top. Outside the sport I think trying to be a good husband and parent to my kids is the biggest challenge and I feel like I am doing a relatively good job there too.
What is your drink or cocktail of choice?
Clearly a gin dirty martini. Tanqueray please.
Would you consider yourself an extrovert?
I would say an extrovert. I say that because if I’m having a rough day and get quiet people think there is something wrong with me. Being quiet doesn’t seem to work for me.
Do you like to cook? If so, what’s your best meal?
I love to cook. Thanks to my mom, who was a fantastic Thai cook, I love to eat and cook Thai.
What do you do to stay in shape?
First and foremost I would say a lot of my natural athleticism is genetic. Both of my parents were athletic and slim people, so I can’t take a lot of credit for what people might think is gained through hard work. I am conscious of what I eat and drink though and have been a calorie counter when needed. I’ve run a lot of marathons and ultra-marathons too. I like to stay in shape, but I’m not a gym rat.
What is the most important thing in your life?
Depends on what hour of the day. Getting the kids to school? Jokes aside I am strong in my faith. I don’t think I’m necessarily known as a bible thumper but I have a faith and am what some might call a “Jesus freak.” That keeps me glued and I’m eternally grateful for. I would have to say that is the most important thing in my life that challenges but yet influences me, and it’s a trickle-down effect from there. My wife and family are very important to me.
By skydiver standards, you come across as a little straight laced. Is there a wild side to Solly?
Yep! There is! That guy thankfully calmed down a lot though. I have always had a keen sense of adventure and couldn’t turn down a dare when younger. Adhering to all the rules imposed on me doesn’t always come easy. Whether it be driving too fast or generally struggling with rules that were made to overcome lack of common sense. I guess it is part of having the skydiver adventurous spirit.
Is there anything you won’t eat?
I am comfortable in saying I will eat pretty much anything one time. I generally like 99.9 percent of what I have tried around the world.
Do you have any nicknames?
Some people attract nicknames and I was clearly one of them. Solly is still a nickname as my real name is Silvanus which never quite stuck. When I was in high school the Sully thing started. Sally, Sully and some guys poked fun and called me Silly too. When I went into the army my name had settled as Sully. Two years in the army turned Sully into Solly and it just kind of stuck. In my early 20s some tried Sylvester and that turned into Rambo for a few years too. Glad to have lost that one.
What might be something people would be surprised to know you do well?
I once set a goal to ride a bicycle backward while sitting on the handle bars and juggling 3 balls simultaneously. Clearly too many weather holds on the drop zone, as it was achieved.
For the new jumpers out there, would you like to share any tips or advice?
The sport is all about finding a mentor or someone to lead you in the right direction. Make sure you are always listening to someone who is focusing on safety when jumping out of a plane or landing a parachute and not simply performance orientated. It’s a great sport and meant to be fun, but most importantly we are meant to stay alive. Dying while doing something you love is still dying. Ain’t cool.
Who do you look up to?
In the sport I would say those that pioneered making the sport safer. Outside of the sport both of my parents. They are not alive anymore, and I never truly valued what they did for our family when growing up. As you grow older and have kids you realize what kind of sacrifices they made for us.
What makes your heart race?
I think competition of any sort. My heart will be racing in Chicago as I compete with the U.S. female team at the world meet in September as much as it would if I was waiting for the gates to drop on a motocross race start. It’s the thrill of the competition. The pressure through expectation that you put on yourself.
If you could travel anywhere for a week on your own, where would you go?
Some little remote village in Thailand and improve my Thai cooking skills.
Do you have any Guilty Pleasures?
I can demolish a tub of Häagen-Dazs on my own in one sitting.
What scares you?
Outside of reckless skydiving, very little. I don’t mean to sound boastful. I’ve managed to strike a balance between adventure and safe fun through life. I’m not overly keen on what I can’t always see, like sharks, but I do love to be in the surf. I’m not tickled by the idea of finding myself being hunted down by a hungry great white.
What non-skydiving life event has had the biggest impact on who you are today?
My faith has the biggest impact on who I am today. Traveling extensively and living in foreign countries. Living all over the world and gaining the global experience has had a big impact and given me an appreciation for the smaller things in life too.
Who is harder to coach, the new team or the world level teams?
I think it is harder to coach the top level of the sport for a variety of reasons. There is a much higher level of expectation, frustration, and at times failure at the higher end. Trying to shave tenths of seconds off maneuvers and not always succeeding can kill the fun factor. Plus, top level sport can be cruel at times and as a coach you share the success and the failure with teams too. A lower level team’s learning curve is much steeper and this makes the environment more fun until the curve flattens and the frustrations set in. As a coach you can hardly say anything wrong with newer teams and they are having the time of their lives. However, I prefer the higher level teams because it’s more technical and I enjoy that challenge.
How did you pull off the job of getting to coach the Golden Knights 4-way team for so many years?
They approached me asking if I could help them out a little bit. I think my frankness at first helped as they clearly needed some technical input. They were hoping for some funding for coaching but said they would like to hire me for a few days and pay for it out of their pockets if there was no funding. That really impressed me and I proposed I would double whatever they paid for in terms of time. They procured some funding and it has turned into a job that’s into its third year now.
Is there anything you wish people would better understand about coaching skydiving?
The old cliché “practice makes perfect” isn’t so true in the sports world. Practice makes permanent, and 4-way skydiving is so repetitious. I spend almost as much time undoing poor technique as I do coaching more proved methods. Practicing the wrong technique is really just making it “permanent wrong.”
Teacher’s pet or class clown? Clown
Coffee or tea? Tea followed by coffee
Physical strength or mental fortitude? Mental fortitude
Sing or dance? Sing
7-cell or 9-cell? Whichever the Valkyrie is. [It’s a 7-cell.] Love or passion? Passion
Beach or mountains? Beach
Vodka or whiskey? Whiskey if we are talking Scotch
Surf or turf? Surf
Comedy or horror? Comedy
Formal or casual? Casual
Early bird or night owl? Early bird
Loyalty or ambition? Loyalty
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